Wednesday, 27 June 2007

BBC and the new reality

Two pieces of recent news about the BBC confirm to me that the organisation, despite whatever problems it has, essentially 'gets' the new paradigm of programming and broadcast. That is so say, the transitional period of simple linear television scheduling and the future of multiple kinds of distribution to audiences with different levels of technology, and different levels of interest in interacting with that technology. I for example am not massively keen on watching TV via my laptop if I have a choice, but do tend to watch shows stored on my Sky+.

Firstly we are informed that BBC2 will repeat more programming and take more shows from BBC3/4, but despite journo's spin as a viewer I actually see this as a positive rather than a negative.

Ok, granted this isn't the best news for smaller producers who rely on these shows to help make a living, but the BBC isn't a charity and doesn't owe anyone a living.

There is simply so much content nowadays, and specifically from the BBC, so much locally originated programming that as a viewer I miss a lot of shows that I would enjoy or be challenged by. But whilst the BBC is making masses of quality content, it is paradoxically making it harder to
cut through the masses of media therefore harder to find and watch.

The fine art of promotion (and implicitly scheduling) has been honed to a very focused, very targeted and very efficient way of driving mass audiences to a particular point in time, for a increasingly limited number of shows. The leads to big ratings, a big splash and back slaps all around within the organisation.

Take Mary Queen of Shops as an example, a great show, with lots of on-air promotion and lashing of press coverage. Like many others I was alerted to it by a press report the next morning, but despite hunting through BBC web pages and EPGs I discovered the first, no doubt expensive, episode had been on and gone in a blink of an eye. Missed that one, couldn't join in the water-cooler moment and had to wait for next week to pick it up from there. If that was a drama, and I missed the first episode, I simply wouldn't have bothered with the series. That never, ever, ever happens on any of the commercial channels, its revenue suicide.

So I have a few requests for the BBC:
1. Always repeat your highest profile shows the week they are broadcast, and don't 'hide' that repeat info, say by mentioning it on the web. Do drive audiences to your prime showing, but realise you need to fit into people's lives, they shouldn't have to fit into your schedule.

2. If you create a season of shows, to be viewed as a season, make them a linked series on the EPG, rather than have to go onto the net or find a paper to individually find and programme shows. Make it easy for your audience to find and watch your great shows.

3. Take some of the budget spent on advertising to create a email service where one can register your interest in specific genres and get a weekly mail highlighting what you might be interested in across TV, Radio and online.

4. Take a good idea from the internet – tags, and use them to help people find and understand shows that might be of interest. Use them on the net, publish them in Radio Times, convince Sky and Virgin et al to add that functionality to EPGs, hey even convince your creative promo makers to include them on-screen.

5. As off-peak shows get ‘downgraded’, don’t just make more mass market shows more cheaply. Other channels all aim shows at the same mass market, commercially attractive demographics, why not look and see what audiences are under-served, and serve them by reflecting their issues and concerns (on whatever platform). These can be low cost, but hopefully with high ‘Appreciation Factors’. Strong ideas for formats ARE important, but making sure a community is served is more important. Think of these as ‘mini-channels’, like BBC Seniors, BBC Rural, BBC Gay or BBC citizenship for immigrants which need shows. Diverse programming is more than casting certain types in EastEnders!

Now the above points still stand in our current world where the vast majority of audiences are still in the world of linear (and even multi-channel) TV, without or even with PVRs. But the world IS changing ...

So the other good news this week was that BBC's iPlayer is launching months ahead of expectation on July 27th and you can see some screengrabs at digital spy.

This does negate some of the above arguments about scheduling, but only for the tiny minority who have the ability, or the inclination, to go online and watch on computers (streaming across the home is still a very geeky, often clunky and very rare thing).

Its a shame the BBC Trust put restrictions on its use, but I'm looking forward to not missing what could be my favourite shows.

Today's blog was slightly shorter as I have a bad 'mancold' :(

Friday, 22 June 2007

The Shake-Out? Multi-channel in the UK

There's always lots of media coverage when a new channel is launched, but that's less true when a service shuts down - no boastful press releases then. The economics of running a TV business are tough, no matter if you are a big player or running a station off a laptop with a staff of 2 interns (literally, I've visited those stations ).

Many TV businesses were launched on business plans that looked at breaking even in 2 to 5 years. Many were there as 'placeholders' to gain market share, to vainly help with ratings slides, through to simple 'squatting' holding onto valuable EPG slots in the entertainment section looking for a buyer.

The market is being squeezed and in many cases broadcasters and bumping along either side of break-even. Investors and parent companies are now getting itchy feet.

The squeeze on channels and their revenues has been getting much more intense: The rise of Freeview; the massive squeeze on subscription revenues (if you've managed to get them at all); the rise in Sky EPG costs; the collapse of participation revenues; getting shunted to EPG dead zones; attracting advertising; costs of running a subscription service on Sky being uneconomic for pretty much any player (Film 4 included) at a price the public are willing to pay; negotiating your way onto cable; a glut of pitifully bad competition drowning out mid-size quality players; the rise of the internet and social networks; the rise of Joost, BT Vision and other new distribution platforms; the rise of the long tail VoD business model; rights issues and costs; technology changes and free content (does anyone pay for ring-tone specific downloads anymore?), the list just goes on and on.

We are beginning to see the changes, but like the UK housing market will there be a collapse (say prompted by a Sky rule change) or a gentle slide?

I don't think this in the end of multi-channel but I do see 2 things happening. A greater polarisation between 2 distinct business groups. One, well funded, with multiple, well marketed 'brands' featuring 'expensive' content and run by large, funded businesses on all major platforms who are either a top 5 player in one market (eg: Virgin Media's, ITV's or Five's bouquet of channels who all have a Freeview window), or a significant player in multiple markets (MTV, Discovery, Turner). Mass market with one shared back office infrastructure and able to attract advertising, sponsorship and of course audiences. In here you'll also have the businesses who use TV as some kind of shop window, from gambling and bingo,through to shopping channels and pure advertiser strands like Audi TV.

Secondly I see a big mass of properly niche players featuring targeted content, distributed via 'secondary' methods where distribution costs are lower, where capabilities of charging subscriptions, 'accounts', one off payments and targeted advertising are within realistic reach. These will be the entrepreneurial businesses, the niche content players, distribution and production companies. Already Ten Alps is becoming a major player in this emerging market and expect Joost, BT Vision, You Tube and others to be names to look out for as well as 'new' broadcasters like the National Union of Students and the like.

So is this pointless musing, or is the middle market really being squeezed?

In recent weeks both Optimistic and Life TV have essentially disappeared having sold their valuable entertainment EPG slots. We've had channel's like London TV move over to broadband, the Simply group change focus as they become a broadband distributor, DITG/YooMedia moved away from being broadcasters. A whole swathe of adult, shopping and participation and gaming services shutting down or imploding. There are rumours of Channel 4 taking over one or more of EMAP's music channels - perhaps no surprise as those channels revenue streams of a £1 a pop to request a video on a channels that plays out the ostensibly the same music on a 2 hour loop. Channels like Extreme Sports moved from a 'bespoke' service to be put under the wings of Zone Media who specialise in buy-by-the-100-hours library programming with minimal brand building and marketing, surviving on low risk, low cost, lower return models with little ambition.

Looking at comments by Jonny Webb and Malcolm Wall I'd expect a rejig (and loss of?) channels in the Virgin Media stable, Turner had a re-jig recently and how much longer will NBC Universal keep backing Sci-Fi UK as a stand alone brand when any break out hit it has gets pinched by the competition (Heroes). This mass market is going to have more 'strong' players as Virgin 1 and MTV's General Entertainment services launch and squeeze the value in multi-channel and dig their claws deep into the emerging platforms.

I of course, could be wrong and your comments are appreciated as always.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Mainstream TV not appreciated by the non-Mainstream

I'm a little surprised at the reaction to Ofcom's report about Ethnic Minorities , which stated that they were not watching that much that much mainstream TV. What did they expect?

Ofcom: teaching the industry to suck eggs.

British shows both on terrestrial TV and on all the major digital services are very much aimed at attracting a mass audience and therefore pandering to that mass audience. Drama especially is full of middle-class, middle England English people with suburban preoccupations and limited outlooks. Anyone spot a character who didn't look like they lived in a nice house in Esher on ITV's Primeval ? In fact their idea of ethnic was a having one Scottish actor to break up the casting (OK, I actually liked that show).

I remember the days when we use to bitch about American TV being flat and insipid, but now I'm the one that doesn't really watch ITV1 and its wealth of home-produced look-a-like, cast-a-like, bland-a-like shows.

Ultimately, why should we expect people to feel involved in a show that has no relevance to them... and I'm not just talking Afro-Caribbeans or South Asians. The same lack of emotional involvement historically affect lost of those outside the mainstream, be they gay, disabled, in non-traditional relationships, living in closed cultural communities, geeks and even Social Network obsessed youth and urbanites etc. You always feel more involved in stories where you're own realities, aspirations and fears are reflected back at you. Who would think otherwise?

I wanted to make 2 points to finish. Firstly, this will always be an issue (especially at PSBs) as long as so many people in TV come from such a narrow strata of society: Those who can afford to do what it takes to get a break in TV; those who talk with the right kind of talk (BBC and Oxbridge domination anyone?); those who are willing to deal the inherent instability of an industry that has become so casualised in terms of staffing.

Secondly, just as some people like Horror, some romance, some sexy shows and some gardening programmes - is there an issue with a vibrant market in niche channels? Of course social cohesion in society is of the utmost importance, and Public Service Broadcasters should absolutely make sure their content reflects society. This is especially true of reflecting life in the major urban areas where minorities congregate and troubles flair. That said, audiences with non-mainstream tastes will always demand more content relevant to them, and more content that really pushes their buttons not just acknowledge their existence.

So, bring on BET, Logo, the Cyclist channel, Wedding TV, Sony Entertainment et al. Let that niche and ethnic content flourish and feed back into the mainstream.

PS - I should add that I do fall slightly out of the mainstream, what with my choice of partners and whilst I'm a Londoner born and bred - that also means English was the second language and second culture I had to learn, Polish being the first.

Related to this thread, in my next post I'll be looking at shake out in UK channels and take a look at where content and brands, especially niche ones might be going.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Netiquette for work, play n' family

Today I got an email asking me to stop updating on LinkedIn and just use Facebook for my work colleagues instead. I was struck with horror at the very idea.

So in the days before Web 2.0, or even in the days of early social networks it was easy to keep work life and 'home' life nice and separate.

I remember not so much censoring my life, but I think we are all a bit selective about which parts of our lives we share with who. I had people I knew as work contacts and clients, some as party friends, some as work colleagues, some as confidants. You wouldn't tell a potential employer about the mad Friday you had, nor hint to your little nephew about that sexual extravaganza you quite fancy mentioning to your mates.

Even a year or 2 ago, if you used social networking at all you'd be 'Funky Babe' on a dating site, 'Dutch' on a motorbiking forum, or 'SW18Boy' on MSN. Anonymity was taken for granted and there was a total freedom to express oneself.

There is a trend in Social Networking though where honesty and transparency is considered best - and that's refreshing. On Facebook, LinkedIn and others, you are there generally under you own, real name. It discourages flaming and the other anti-social negatives that come with hiding behind an impersonal persona. This is about the net and your real life acting in perfect harmony, a virtuous circle that helps you keep in touch.

The downside is that it is increasingly getting harder to keep the different strands of your life separate. Friends, potential lovers, employers, journo's, the police can just look up your name, or any email address they have.

I've had head-hunters requesting to be my Facebook friend, but I want a space where I can be open about my foibles, moods and hangovers to my social peer group. I want head-hunters and clients to see the thrusting, confident me, not the one that's missing his partner. I definitely don't want them, or other work colleagues making value or moral judgements about me based on a snapshot of my life.

Now I love the social and work benefits of these networks, but the more our lives are 'available' in centralised hubs the better these need to be to allow us to filter the broadcast of this information and keep control of our lives.
Real life social networks and nuanced and that's the next challenge for these websites if they wish to continue to dominate.

What I'm scared of is people ending up self-censoring their online life into a U certificate, which just stops in being fun.

More seriously I'm worried that just as some corporate employers demand you stop smoking and submit to random drugs tests, that the balance between employers buying your skills and time and employers expecting you to be 'their person 24/7' will change for the worse.

Post script:
Discussing the sentiments behind this post with cowbite she wonders whether society will have changed in 20 years as the current younger generation who are happy to share their 'hook ups', and pissy moods, who'll be linked friends with someone half a lifetime after a one night stand, come to positions of power as bosses, heads of HR and even as journalists.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

TV's Little White Lies

There's been a lot of chat about 'honesty' in UK TV recently after the scandal involving certain Participation TV players, some of whom to be frank were conning people out of money in a manner reminiscent of street con-men doing the three card trick. I definitely got some dirty looks when I was involved with gambling on TV, but at least with that every pound you gave us, was a pound that was genuinely placed as a bet, with the chance of a return advertised (the odds).

But today I want to talk about a slightly different kind of honesty, the little white lies that Producers tell via voice overs and edits in Factual TV. The little white lies used to tell a story clearly, to add drama, to make a show exciting to watch. Its the kind of fuzzy little lies that any Producer or researcher involved in factual or reality will have done a thousand times.

Last night I watched the finals of the UK's latest series of The Apprentice. What struck me throughout the show we had a constant voice over mentions along the lines of 'it's the 12th week',
'at the end of this week Sir Alan makes his choice', 'the final week', tonight they present', 'tomorrow Sir Alan chooses'.

That's perfectly normal on TV, I get that if you start quoting time-lines via the shooting schedule you'll just confuse the viewer. But in this case it came across as ridiculous, an untruthful, I was being lied to.

Unlike may other shows, this one was different - it's been on the front pages of The Sun and The Mirror, it's been discussed in The Independent and The Guardian. If you're in the UK and have any kind of awareness of the media not only do you know about Katie, the married man and naked countryside romps, you also know the well discussed fact that Sir Alan in fact had the 2 finalists on his employ for 6 months before he made his choice.

It makes The Apprentice look ridiculous, and eats away at the trust an audience has for what TV tells us is 'real'. Manipulate away on Big Brother, we all know that happens and there is no real pretence. But don't tell me on TV that I'm looking at the colour blue when I know from my morning paper, my web news feeds that what I'm seeing is the colour red.

Just as the internet is helping hold politicians to account, making Corporate giants acts a little more truthfully, isn't it time the 'Reality' Production industry took a look at how it edits, plans it's narratives and writes its voice overs.

This isn't the easy option, it might mean a lot more work. It might even mean that its much, much harder to make that impact that a hot show needs.

However, if the downside is loosing your audience, or more accurately never gaining that younger audience that is used to truth and challenging corporate facts and fingers, well doesn't that make it worth at least stopping and thinking about those little white lies we tell without thinking.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

What IS the next Big Brother??

So anyone working in TV wants to have the ‘big idea’ that will become a global hit, make them a fortune and earn them the adulation of their peers.

But the stakes are much higher if you’re a big wig at say CBS, ITV or even Sky One as multi-channel competition, the web, VoD, Xbox, Facebook, PVRs et al all slowly take their toll on audiences and advertiser’s fat wallets. We must never forget that TV’s competitive market place also includes people choosing to go down the pub, talk on phone or reading Heat (or even Dostoyevsky) rather than sitting down in front of the goggle box.

Now one of the many beauties about Big Brother is that it truly operates in this wider market place. People do chose to come home from the pub to watch the show. In fact some pubs, knowing their competitive market place advertise that their places are the venues of choice to watch BB, where you experience the whole communal experience of the show to the max.

Right now the TV industry is busy looking ahead at the internet and the new distribution methods it brings, at looking at enriching programming from UGC, at making money through personalised ads. That’s all great and very positive.

Now what TV isn’t doing enough of is looking at what it’s actually delivering, the format, the show and ultimately the schedule which is in the process of being if not written off, then written down.

Look at my life (if you don’t mind) for a minute: I’ve got a bunch of inappropriately young friends for a 40 year old, so I’m there social networking, chatting and sharing files on MSN, uploading onto flickr, chatting via Xbox Live, Bit Torrenting the latest shows and catching up on juicy clips via You Tube. As a TV & Media Exec, what I don’t get is why does this world need to be separate from the world of linear channels, formats and real time schedules? Shouldn’t we be embracing this into our world.

I’ve spent the last while looking around trying to get my head around what directions the business might head in, if there is a profitable business to be had at all. iTV bods always said the industry will take off when that one ‘killer format’ gets off the ground. But it never did, it was technology over usability, and more importantly what the user even wanted to do. I’d rather not see TV fade away.

So looking around, what do people want like to do in their ‘relax’ time? It’s suspenseful drama like 24, its answering quizzes like ‘… Millionaire’, it’s working out the procedures and thought processes on CSI, enjoying fantasy like Ugly Betty, brain teasers like Sudoku, it’s chatting to friends on the phone and via facebook, it’s doing something mad like flash mobbing or just going to the park to watch a free show.

But what if we could combine all this into one show: Even better, one show where a bit of viewer loyalty to the linear channel, and the idea of watching stuff live could give you a bit on an edge if you fancied beating your friends to an answer, or winning £50, or even winning a million. Now wouldn’t that be worth looking at?

Out there in the world of geekdom; the world of Second Life, World of Warcraft and even Dungeon and Dragons, a new ‘format’ has been brewing away gently waiting for technology, systems and a mass market to be ready for it. It’s called Alternative Reality Gaming and the best way to describe it, is like the world around you becomes a big game of Cluedo, an episode of CSI that you live in, and play in.

The best known examples are Nokia Game, and the well funded Perplex City which, I’m sure the clever people in charge of them would tell you, are still on a learning curve for mass market penetration. The issue I see is that whilst technology moves fast, people don’t – you still have web people doing web, TV people doing TV – and us media professionals need to be in place where our brightest creative minds and executives can travel from one world to the other, seeing the potential there and adding their knowledge.

I’ve decided to hook up with a man who helped a major UK channel dominate on a Saturday night to see if we can crack this conundrum. It’s an eye opening journey with some spectacular possibilities, but it’s interesting to see how some TV Exec’s ‘get it’ and others just glaze over in boredom. We might fail but you could never call us complacent. Hopefully we’ll be screening your calls from our yacht very soon.

Vlad Lodzinski is currently working on creating Alternative Reality Game formats for a TV audience.